One of my most requested poems at readings is “Schoenberg’s Second Conversion,” my version of the life of Arnold Schoenberg, an important composer of the 20th century. Schoenberg created what is called “12 tone music,” a technique of composition that gives all 12 notes of the chromatic scale equal weight, so that the music is never in any key. 12-tone composition yields strange but beautiful music, lush with dissonances.
Schoenberg lived a typical life for a wealthy Jew in the German-speaking world in the decades before Word War II. He converted to Christianity via baptism as a child as part of his family’s climb up the social ladder. But after fleeing Nazi Germany a few days following the Reichstag fire in 1933, the first thing Schoenberg did on disembarking in Paris was to find a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, and reconvert to Judaism. The mikvah, central to Schoenberg’s Second Conversion,” also plays a major role in my new novel The Brothers Silver, set for release by Owl Canyon Press on June 15th.
“Schoenberg’s Second Conversion” appeared years ago in a small literary press called Orphic Lute and in my first book of poetry, Music from Words. It has also been reprinted in the anthology, Along These Rivers and in the 2018 Jewish Currents annual calendar.
SCHOENBERG’S SECOND CONVERSION
When I was a boy, they told me,
submerge your head in water, count to ten.
Instead I counted heartbeats and there were twelve
and I made my song.
I dreamed of Jacob’s ladder,
angels flying upward, angels flying downward twelve rungs,
each a tribe, I thought, or perhaps a tone
and I wanted to raise my song.
There is one temple in heaven that only music opens
and for it I searched, dragging my twelve tribes of sound,
the modern Jacob, I thought, whose children are syllogisms
giving birth to law, giving birth to song.
Rung by rung, learning what I knew,
posing a problem, then solving and re-solving,
then seeking a precept behind all solution
until I had climbed twelve rungs and prayed my song.
Now, fleeing Hitler in this month of fire,
I listen for the law of sound in train’s blunt rasp
and read of Jacob’s dream and understand my blunder:
The ladder is beside him, but he does not climb.
When the train stops, it will be Paris
and I will disembark and find a ritual bath
and dunk myself a second time and, head submerged,
count heartbeats till twelve, and this time
the song will make me.
Originally published in Orphic Lute and Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007); reprinted in Along these Rivers (Quadrant, 2008) and the 2018 Jewish Currents calendar